Improvement Imperative

Player development is the hallmark of Brian Kelly's college coaching career. In a week-long series, Irisheyes.com looks at what each returning player needs to improve upon, statistically and otherwise, in 2012.

To a man, the Notre Dame coaching staff and players felt the team was better in 2011 than it was in 2010. Conversely, you'd be hard-pressed to find more than 10 percent of Irish fans, media, or outside critics that felt the same.

Intelligent arguments can be constructed for either of Brian Kelly's 8-5 football teams. His 2010 unit finished with a flourish but was badly outclassed in two of its losses (Stanford and Navy). The 2011 team limped to the finish line with consecutive defeats but aside from the Stanford contest at season's end (and arguably *USC) the squad largely shot itself in the foot in defeat.

(*I think USC was far better than Notre Dame when they met last October but still recognize the game probably should have been tied entering the final quarter. Then again, excuses are for teams that lose five games...)

"I think if you match this team up vs. last year's team, I think this team is better," said Harrison Smith following the team's Champs Sports Bowl defeat last December. "But at the end of the day all that matters is the record."

And that's the point of this column and the ensuing series of articles to follow this week:

What would qualify as tangible improvement from each returning Irish player?

We'll begin with the team's offense, position-by-position, and make our way through the roster.

Running Backs

The group lost Jonas Gray who ranks among the most improved single-season players in the history of the program. Leading rusher Cierre Wood was also markedly better in 2011 than he was as a half-season starter in 2010.

In addition to Wood, senior Theo Riddick and sophomore George Atkinson III return from 2011with Riddick moving back to the running back spot where he started his Irish career, pre-Kelly.

Four newcomers will be discussed later in a column that examines potential first-year impact for incoming players: sophomore transfer Amir Carlisle, incoming freshmen Will Mahone and Keivarae Russell, and junior-to-be Cameron Roberson, who's yet to make his field debut following a red-shirt season and subsequent March 2011 knee injury.

Measuring Improvement – Cierre Wood

Wood's numbers in 2011 were among the best in program history. His 1,102 rushing yards ranked 10th all-time; his nine touchdowns were the most from a ‘back since Darius Walker in 2005 and tied for third-most since the millennium, and at 5.1 yards per pop Wood ranks second behind Julius Jones among single-season rushing leaders over the last 15 years. (Jonas Gray averaged more yards per carry but did not lead the team in rushing last fall.)

None of the above must improve for the Irish offense to be better in 2012 than it was in 2011, but three facets of Wood's game must:

  1. Ball Security: Wood has fumbled six times in 336 rushing attempts, losing three to the opponent over the last 22 games. His two miscues last year were costly in losses to Michigan and USC; the latter included an inexcusable half-hearted attempt at recovery. The only acceptable number for Wood in 2012, his third season as a regular is 0. No fumbles, no matter how many touches. Great ‘backs don't fumble in college. Wood is already good, but ball security is a controllable first step toward greatness.

  2. Be Better vs. the Best: 35 carries, 106 yards, no touchdowns. Those are Wood's aggregate rushing totals vs. USC, Stanford, and Florida State last fall, three of the four best rushing defenses on last year's schedule (Michigan State and USF ranked ahead of the Trojans, who finished 18th). Wood was a workhorse vs. MSU (#9 rush D), USF (#15) and Pittsburgh (#21), toting the rock a combined 58 times for 259 yards and three touchdowns. It's not all on Wood (zero commitment to the running game vs. USC and Stanford was part of the problem), but at this stage of his career, Wood has to play his best vs. the top dogs.

  3. Earn it Inside: Gray is gone; Riddick tends to bounce everything outside and that's unlikely to change early next fall; Atkinson is unproven in every aspect from scrimmage. Add it up and its apparent Cierre Wood will have to pick up the toughest yards for the 2012 Irish: 3rd and 1 in his own territory; 3rd and 2 in the red zone; and of course, 3rd and 4th and goal from just outside the 1, especially as the team fights through September contests vs. Michigan and Michigan State and vs. rough-and-tumble rush defenses such as Stanford (#3 last year), BYU (#19), and Pittsburgh (#21).

    Until proven otherwise, Wood is the team's "short-yardage ‘back" next fall. He filled the role vs. Pittsburgh, an undervalued aspect of the three-point road victory. He'll have to do so again, unless Atkinson, who runs with power but at present too high of a pad level to be a short-yardage ‘back, proves he can fill the bill.

Measuring Improvement – Theo Riddick

At his best, Theo Riddick turns short crossing routes into first downs and/or 20-yard gains (Air Force 2011). At his best, Riddick once caught 33 passes over a four-game stretch (Sept-Oct 2010), ranking as only one of four players to do so at the program over the last 40 years. And at his best, Riddick hits the hole after one cut, heading upfield with a burst that screams "running back" not "hybrid."

Statistics rarely define greatness, but it wouldn't hurt if Theo Riddick began to put up some sterling numbers in his final season. If Riddick earns 100-125 carries next fall, Notre Dame will have its best offense during the Brian Kelly era, because he will have earned them. With good health, a minimum of 35 receptions is guaranteed – I could see as many as 60-65, though that'd be a bad sign because its doubtful many would be secured more than five yards from the line of scrimmage.

Riddick's 2012 season, and yes, his final numbers, will be the defining moment of his Irish career, because to date. Riddick's abilities are discussed more often than they're witnessed.

He is, in my estimation, the team's quickest player with the ball in his hands, though definitely not the fastest. He was mentioned by assistant coach Tony Alford as having potentially the best hands on the team (outside of Tyler Eifert) as recently as spring 2011. And he was deemed a true triple threat by his head coach, though that honor was stripped shortly after his first attempt at a punt return as a collegian ended up in the wrong hands.

Riddick could rank second on the team in touches (behind Wood); second or third in total touchdowns (behind Wood and potentially Eifert); second in receptions (Eifert), total yards from scrimmage (Wood), rushing yards (Wood), receiving yards (Eifert), or even "money plays," as Notre Dame tracks 3rd Down conversions as such, and Eifert and Michael Floyd dominated in this category last fall.

But to date, all of the above qualifies as speculative. Theo Riddick will have improved at season's end if he produces. Period. Total yards from scrimmage in competitive games would be a strong indicator with total touchdowns secondary and total receptions nowhere near the top of the list, because check-down passes that end short of the first-down marker are the hallmark of poorly executed offenses in the modern game (ask Armando Allen.)

If you're looking for a singular test: rushing plays in excess of 15 yards and receptions in excess of 20 (he had eight last year) should be an accurate measuring stick. A combined 30 is a realistic goal.

Measuring Improvement – George Atkinson

Atkinson saw only mop-up duty from scrimmage as a true freshman last fall. It was also apparent that the staff did not yet trust him, even as a change of pace back, as the following stat line at Stanford and vs. FSU to end the season indicates: 0 carries…need you know more?

(And that without Jonas Gray in the fold to aid Wood's efforts in the backfield.)

In fact, Atkinson only earned carries vs. Air Force (with ND up 40) and Navy (with the Irish up 28). That's unlikely to be the case next season, though Wood and Riddick will begin August a few levels ahead of Atkinson in the pecking order (so too could transfer Amir Carlisle, who missed spring ball with a broken foot).

The first key for Atkinson is ball security. He simply can't fumble, ever, as a backup and/or third string runner. Second will be understanding and executing his assignments on every snap: hitting the right hole, picking up the correct pass-rusher, releasing at the appropriate depth in pass patterns. Ensuring that the staff trusts him enough without the ball will allow him to eventually carry the rock more than once or twice per half, or in crucial times during still undecided contests.

His speed and running ability can be showcased thereafter.

As noted above, I believe Wood will be the team's short-yardage runner, but Atkinson can still bring a physical, one-cut style to the position. He's a true homerun hitter, and if the Blue Gold Game is any indication (its usually not, but who knows?), Atkinson appears to possess leg drive through contact that will define him as a runner.

There is no bigger offensive X-factor than Atkinson in 2012. His initial chances might be minimal in what's shaping up as a loaded backfield, so he'll have to make the most of each.

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